For a number of years, Egypt has functioned as a skin democracy that is in fact controlled by President Hosni Mubarak and the National Democratic Party (NDP). There are speculations as to who will succeed the aging president. Will his departure mean a transition to a more democratic Egypt, or will the country continue in the same vein, for example under the leadership of Mubarak’s own son?

In 1952 Gamal abd el Nasser and the Free Officers led a military coup against the Egyptian monarchy. When abd el Nasser’s successor Anwar al Sadat was killed in 1981, the new president Hosni Mubarak declared a state of emergency that is still in force. This state of emergency allows the regime to set aside basic civil rights under cover of security policy considerations. Elections are being held at both the President and the National Assembly, but these are subject to a number of irregularities and regulations that make the real power remain with the NDP and Mubarak. At the same time, the regime allows some degree of opposition, but here the limits of what is tolerated vary.

Dissolved opposition

Recent years have seen a gradual tightening of civil and political rights in Egypt. This is especially true of the illegal Muslim Brotherhood, which is the main opposition group. Founded in 1928, this organization has had a tremendous ideological influence far beyond Egypt’s borders. Palestinian Hamas originated here. Both democratic Muslim parties and extreme groups such as al Qaeda then derive ideological inspiration from various parts of the Brotherhood’s history.

The Brotherhood itself has become increasingly democratically oriented, and the brothers have been elected as individual candidates. This was more or less tolerated until 2005, when the Brotherhood’s representatives defied electoral fraud and won 20 percent of the seats in the national assembly. Through a series of constitutional amendments and security measures, the regime has now hit hard on the Brotherhood. One therefore expects it to be very difficult for the brothers to take part in the November 2010 parliamentary elections.

Other parts of the opposition have also come to know the less tolerant political climate. The secular leader of the relatively new al-Ghad party (Morning Day), Ayman Nour, was imprisoned early on, and has therefore been barred from playing any vital role in Egyptian politics. The same goes for al Wasat, the party that younger Brotherhood leavers have tried to start with, among other things, Egyptian Christians (Copters). Other legal parties such as the Wafd and the Egyptian Labor Party offer the regime little real resistance, and also have low support among Egyptians. Furthermore, there is a strong divide in the opposition. The split applies between legal and illegal parties, but most notable are the conflicts between secular and Islamist-oriented actors. Part of the opposition occasionally manages to make common cause, for example through the umbrella movement Kefeya! (Enough!), But these initiatives have limited lifespan and influence. This inability to unite will allow the opposition to remain weak vis-à-vis the regime.

Leading in the Arab World

Egypt has for many years been leading in the Arab world both politically and culturally. The country is also an important mediator and intermediary between the West and the Arab countries, and between various actors in the Middle East. Egypt was the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, and therefore plays an important role in negotiations between Israel and Palestine.

Egyptian film and television productions are sold to most Arabic-speaking countries. Egyptian film is probably best known for its comedies, but has also created reactions in the Middle East by portraying controversial themes such as homosexuality. Several of Egypt’s newspapers are distributed throughout the region, and the country also has an active online community where bloggers are an important part. Several opposition bloggers are internationally known and experience periodic persecution with journalists, TV stations and newspapers if they go too far in their criticism of the regime. For example, renowned blogger Abdel Kareem Suleiman received four years in prison for insulting the president and Islam on his private blog. Despite this growing state repression, the media and civil society are one of the region’s most vital.

Socio-economic challenges

Anwar al Sadat and later Mubarak took over a centralized and socialist oriented economy after abd el Nasser. In the 1990s, a series of economic structural adjustments under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) started with emphasis on privatization and decentralization. The country also had to relinquish part of its foreign debt.

According to Countryaah, Egypt has a huge population increase and at the same time poverty is a problem. Illiteracy is widespread, especially in the rural South, and especially among women. At the same time, there is a newer middle class created by Sadat’s economic opening in the 1990s, as well as the more traditional middle class originating in the bazaar. However, differences between poor and rich are increasing, and corruption is widespread. Inflation has made basic commodities such as bread very expensive, which in 2008 led to large demonstrations and riots. Many Egyptians gain their livelihood through the tourism industry, making the economy very vulnerable to terrorist terror and instability in both Egypt and the Middle East. Since Egypt is an important American ally, the country receives a great deal of assistance from this. After 2001, the United States demanded democratic reform.

There is a great deal of uncertainty about the question of who will succeed Mubarak, who is now 81 years old. His son Gamal has long been prophesied as an heir to the throne. Others have cited Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League, or General Omar Suleiman from Egyptian intelligence. Former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Muhammad al Baradei, has surprised by suggesting he may run for president in 2011. So far, there is little evidence that this election will be more just than the previous presidential elections, or that al Baradei is approved as a presidential candidate at all.

Country facts:

Area: 1 million km2 (12th largest)

Population: 81.5 million

Population density: 81 per km2

Urban population: 43 percent

Largest city: Cairo – approx. 11.8 million

GDP per capita: USD 2031

Economic growth: 3.6 percent

HDI Position: 123

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